Monday, July 13, 2015

Wearing Too Many Hats: Unclear Identity at Oxfam America

While reading about Oxfam America prior to 1996, it was easy to see several major problems at play:  senior leaders who lacked authority in a strong democratic culture, lack of open communication among staff members, and ineffective operating systems in IT and Finance. But one area that stands out is the unclear identity and extremely broad areas the organization focused on, pre-Offenheiser. The vision and mission statements were extremely broad. The work Oxfam America was striving to do reflected the scope of multiple foundations or non-profits in the social/economic/justice spheres. The causes were noble, but lacked a clear focus:  world hunger, poverty, environmental resources, peace, equality, and democratization. It was also interesting how the organization had a global focus, while also trying to educate Americans. While reading about the scope of their work, it became difficult to keep track of everything Oxfam stood for. It made me wonder, “Who are they?”

One sentiment that comes to mind is the expression, “You can’t do it all.” It reminds me of the overachieving college student who wants to be involved in countless activities and leadership roles, while still trying to excel in academics and sports. I went to a small liberal arts college where the typical student was a Type A, high achiever. One of the common challenges these students faced was the desire and attempt to do too much.

This tendency also applies to plenty of professionals in any field, who are stretched too thin in their work, either by choice or unwillingly. It can be seen in the academic scholars who sit on multiple steering committees, while serving as advisors to students, writing multiple research papers simultaneously, and devoting a great amount of time to grant writing. It can also be seen in the corporate managers who spend many days in non-stop meetings, reflecting the scope of projects they are part of.

I believe there are some individuals who can maintain this type of lifestyle, being stretched in many directions but not letting the quality of their work suffer and not getting worn out. But for many others, “something has to give.”

Operating with such a broad mission and vision was not sustainable long-term for Oxfam America. All of their interests were noble causes, but to do everything well was not feasible. And it was apparent that they were not doing everything well. The revised vision and mission honed in on and articulated a refined identity. This case provides a good model for other organizations of any type who are struggling with an unclear identity, whether too broad or not effectively defined.

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